The king is dead. Long live the king!

When I teach fiction writing workshops, I use this example for the difference between story and plot:

Example 1—
The king died, and then the queen died.
(Story—a series of events told in sequential order.)

Example 2—
The king died, and then the queen died of heartbreak.
(Plot—a series of events told with cause and effect so one event brings about the next.)

This isn’t an original lesson—it came from one of my writing teachers, the wonderful Joshua Henkin. (If you haven’t read Josh’s novels, including The World Without You and Matrimony, you should go do so immediately.)

Some story happened in Cambodia this week. King Norodom Sihanouk, who led Cambodia for great swaths of the 20th century, died. He was 89 and mostly living in Beijing for medical care; he’d stepped down from the throne in 2004. Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Sihamoni, now wears the crown, but Sihanouk, the king father, is still very popular, and his portrait hangs next to the one of the king in many businesses and homes.

The news was announced on Monday morning, October 15, and by Monday afternoon a crowd had gathered outside the Royal Palace. National days of mourning were proclaimed, and the Water Festival, a holiday at the end of November, was cancelled in Phnom Penh, on account of being too festive for a sad time. I was prepared for a combination of the funerals for Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson.

Sihanouk’s body returned to Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Even though the plane wasn’t supposed to land until 3 pm, people started lining up in the streets in early afternoon for the processional from the airport to the Royal Palace. It was hot, 90-something degrees and humid, but only the westerners were sweating.

Traditional mourning clothes are a white shirt and black pants or skirt, and just about every person in the street was wearing this combination. I wore my white shirt and black pants too, and for the first time in six weeks, I felt like I was able to blend in with the crowd. People pinned a black ribbon to their shirts, which reminded me of Jewish shiva badges, ripped to show the tear in your soul. Monks gathered together at a turn in the street.

Some carried Cambodian flags, flowers and portraits of Sihanouk.


The mood was festive. Maybe it’s not so odd—why not be cheerful for a parade and a moment to feel national pride? The motorcade finally arrived, and when it did it passed quickly; there was no lingering, waving, or taking in the crowds. (Which explains why these photos are at odd angles.) The king father’s golden coffin was in a vehicle that looked like a mythic bird; it was followed by a group of monks in a dragon boat. Older women around me cried genuine tears. Were they mouning the king, the end of an era, or did this death remind them of every other person they’ve mourned? I can’t know.

After the cars passed, the crowds dispersed into what felt like one big block party: children played in the still-barricaded streets, adults hung around chatting with family and friends, and vendors sold cotton candy, kettle corn and sweet drinks.

Small, makeshift shrines, with incense sticks, candles and Cambodian flags, popped up at the base of trees. In front of the Royal Palace were larger urns of flowers and incense, and men and women circled around these praying. People were also weeping openly here, and it felt exploitative to take photos, so I didn’t. Sihanouk’s body will lie in state at the palace for three months before being cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony.


2 thoughts on “The king is dead. Long live the king!

  1. Mary Hodorowski

    Hi Jennifer,
    I was thinking about you as I read King Sihanouk’s obituary in the NYT and wondering how the Cambodian people would respond. Thank you for the fascinating account and wonderful photos. Mary

  2. Joanne Katanick-Canavan

    Hi Jenn,
    Your writing is giving me such insight into the wonders of Cambodia. I always feel like I’m there, with you as you go about your travels. Your pictures are beautiful and I look forward to the time I get to see you and hear and see more.
    Love you always,
    Auntie Jo


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